The yellow jersey of the Tour de France changed hands in controversial fashion yesterday, when Alberto Contador took advantage of Andy Schleck’s mechanical problems to gain 39 seconds on his opponent. But did he do the right thing? Should he have waited for Schleck?
Should is a difficult word. It suggests there is a correct answer, a definitive black and white solution. The rules that govern this are entirely unwritten, and purely a moral question, tempered by endless if’s and buts, and the opinions in the peloton seem split.
On the one hand, taking advantage of an opponent’s misfortune is not in the spirit of this ultimately gentlemanly sport, and Contador could not have failed to have seen Schleck’s problem, seeing as he was behind him at the time (his team would surely have radioed the news, even if that weren’t so). On the other hand, it is a race, and they were in midst of attacking when it happened. There is also an argument for saying that Schleck had used up his quota of goodwill from the unwritten rulebook back on stage 2, when Cancellara held back the entire peloton for his benefit.
There are plenty of previous examples, and it’s impossible to have this debate without mentioning Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, who set the benchmark in gentlemanly conduct on the slopes, first in 2001, when Armstrong waited for Ullrich, and then in 2003, when Ullrich returned the favour (albeit prompted to do so by Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former team-mate). Armstrong was sitting on the fence when asked about the incident yesterday, having not seen it, but people will still look to the example he set when judging Contador’s conduct.
But let’s step off the bike and the mountainside for a moment, and see this from the fans’ point of view. Fans want champions and heroes. Champions win because they are best, indisputably so, and heroes do it with grace, humility, sportsmanship and ideally a bit of adversity too. The fans made it quite clear that Contador had failed to live up to either when he was booed on the podium, and PR and marketing executives will share the fans’ view (they are the ones they sell to, after all).
That Contador subsequently apologised suggests that he realised the ramifications of his actions in that department. What he gained in time was lost in respect and admiration.
Ultimately, Contador made the choice of how he will be remembered. Certainly, it was fully within his rights to go, but that he chose to leave Schleck behind says to me that he wasn’t confident of beating his young opponent, and any victory he now gains will be tainted by that ‘what if’.
One will hope, for his sake, that he now goes on to win it by considerably more than the 39 seconds he gained yesterday.